TV broadcasters made a splash this month at the NAB conference in Las Vegas when they announced plans to create a new mobile video service.
The ambitious effort backed by a dozen companies including Fox, NBC Universal and Gannett Broadcasting would use existing spectrum to power news and entertainment programming to up to 150 million U.S. cell customers.
But a new analysis from research firm The Diffusion Group is skeptical about the prospects for new the DTV initiative. It points out that broadcast TV shows are already being delivered to handsets but with little success.
Through a separate group called the Open Mobile Video Coalition, broadcasters for years have worked to create a national mobile TV standard. So far, 45 U.S. broadcast stations are sending test mobile DTV signals using the ATSC-M/H standard.
That group next Monday will kick off a "consumer showcase" in Washington, D.C. demonstrating how people will be able to watch local digital TV programs for the first time on handsets and other mobile devices.
There's also Qualcomm's FLO TV, which has its own branded mobile video service as well as versions offered through AT&T and Verizon Wireless. The problem with FLO TV and other mobile TV offerings is that they're not available on many phones yet.
"For mobile TV to gain wide acceptance, it must be available on a wide range of popular devices such as the iPhone, BlackBerry, and Android-based phones," states the Diffusion Group report authored by analyst Brian Platts. "Instead, Qualcomm and DTV broadcasters are relying on the sale of dongles and other after-market accessories that plug into mobile devices to enable their mobile TV capability and allow consumers to receive the broadcast signals."
The DTV receiver called the "Tivizen," for instance, goes for $150.
Platts suggests broadcasters should take a lesson from Apple, which made accessing mobile services simple, intuitive and convenient through the iPhone. "For broadcast mobile TV to flourish, there must be widespread diffusion of handsets capable of supporting the service natively, a feat not at all difficult given today's miniaturization technology," he explains. The Catch-22 is that manufacturers won't be eager to add capabilities that aren't likely to be used or drive up costs.
The Diffusion report also shoots down the idea upheld by broadcasters that DTV would help relieve congested wireless data networks. It argues that if mobile TV requires adding accessories and is embedded on only a few devices, most consumers will continue to reject it and stick with cellular service for mobile video. "It is thus in the interest of mobile operators and device vendors alike to push for embedded support of digital mobile TV solutions," according to Diffusion.
But until they see wider uptake of mobile TV, they won't be likely to take that step, creating a chicken-and-egg problem for the broadcasters. They'll have to hope the DTV showcase this summer by nine Washington-area TV stations will lead to greater demand for watching TV on mobile devices.